The first event chronologically following the resurrection of Jesus Christ which the Gospels record is logically the opening of the tomb from which Christ had already left because of His resurrection. Only Matthew records this event. But it is important that Matthew records the event; for it answers some questions about what the women, the first people to come to the tomb on Easter morning, found when they came to the tomb. On the way they worried about who would move the stone for them (Mark 16:3) so they could get into the tomb to administer more spices to Christ’s body and tidy up what Joseph and Nicodemus had done when they hurriedly put Christ in the tomb right after the crucifixion. But when they got to the tomb, they found that stone was already rolled away. How did the stone get rolled away? Our Matthew text answers that question. Furthermore, the women found no soldiers keeping watch of the tomb—these soldiers had been put on this duty on the Sabbath day (day before the resurrection) at the requests of the Jewish religious leaders (Matthew 27:62-66). So what happened to them? Why were they not guarding the tomb? Matthew answers that question, too. And Matthew also reports that when the women arrived at the tombs they encountered angels at the tomb.
Interestingly, though Matthew is the only one to report such things as the Easter earthquake, the opening of the tomb, the reaction of the soldiers, the soldiers’ report to the religious leaders, and the bribing of the soldiers by the religious leaders, "The account of the resurrection of the Lord as given by Matthew is the briefest of all the Gospels" (Gaebelein). But though brief, it is indispensable because of the information it does give concerning the resurrection events.
To further study this text in Matthew about the moving of the stone from the tomb of Christ, we will note the shaking (Matthew 28:2), the seraphim (Matthew 28:2,3), and the sentries (Matthew 28:4) spoken of in the text regarding the moving of the stone from the grave of Christ.
During the crucifixion, an earthquake was reported. It was no small earthquake, for Scripture reports that rocks were broken apart from the quake (Matthew 27:51). The earthquake at the crucifixion was not the only earthquake at this time, however; for another earthquake occurred right after the resurrection. Only Matthew records this earthquake. We note three things from our Matthew text about this earthquake which occurred shortly after the resurrection. They are the moment of the earthquake, the magnitude of the earthquake, and the message in the earthquake.
"Behold, there was a great earthquake" (Matthew 28:2). The "was" in the text indicates the moment of the earthquake. While the moment cannot be ascertained to the exact hour, it can be determined that the earthquake occurred before the women of Matthew 28:1 came to the tomb. Barnes said of the "was" in the sentence, "Rather there had been. It does not mean that this was while they [the women] were there, or while they were going, but that there had been... [a] violent... commotion." This earthquake occurred after the resurrection, for it was "occasioned by the descending angel" (Gaebelein). And as we noted in the introduction of this point, this earthquake is not to be equated with the one that occurred during the crucifixion when the vail in the Temple was rent in twain (Matthew 27:51). The earthquake of our text was a separate earthquake which occurred at a different time than the earthquake which occurred during the crucifixion. There were two separate earthquakes within three days associated with the passion of Christ.
"Great earthquake" (Matthew 28:2). To examine the magnitude of this earthquake, we note the proof of the magnitude, the power of the magnitude, and the perspective of the magnitude.
The proof of the magnitude. The word "great" describes the earthquake as one of considerable magnitude and might. "Great" is the proof in our text that the earthquake was one of considerable magnitude. It was not a small earthquake but a "great" one. The word "great" is translated from the Greek word which gives us "mega" as in such words as megaphone (an instrument for magnifying sound), megalopolis (a large city), and megabyte (computer language for a million bytes). The Richter scale was not invented yet, so the measurement given in our text of the earthquake was simply "great" to denote a major earthquake, one of great magnitude.
The power of the magnitude. The power of the earthquake is emphasized in the word "great." And a "great" earthquake is going to leave a large footprint of destruction. Scripture, however, does not report any of the destruction caused by this earthquake. But in reporting it in conjunction with the removal of the stone from the tomb in which Christ had been laid after His crucifixion, it is quite evident that the earthquake was that which broke the seal of the stone. Scripture does not say that the angel broke the seal of the stone though the angel could have done that with ease, but noting what the earthquake did in Philippi when Paul was in prison would show that this earthquake could indeed be the agent of God to break the seal of the stone covering the entrance of the tomb. The earthquake in Philippi, when Paul and Silas were in prison, loosed the bands of the prisoners (Acts 16:26). Man thinks he is so powerful, but God can send an earthquake to undo all that man has done in opposition to God’s work. The stone covering the entrance to the tomb had been sealed shut by the enemies of Christ on the day following the burial (Matthew 27:62-66). But the earthquake could do a quick work in breaking the seal. "There is a sublime irony in the contrast between man’s elaborate precautions and the ease with which the Divine Hand can sweep them aside, and which, as throughout the history of the Christ and of His Church, recalls the prophetic declaration: ’He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh at them.’" (Edersheim).
The perspective of the magnitude. Unbelief challenges the earthquake report because it is not reported in the other three Gospels. It may seem strange to some that a "great" earthquake goes unreported by three of the Gospels. But the fact that the other Gospels do not report the earthquake is certainly not surprising. After all, there was bigger news than a "great" earthquake to report. That bigger news was the resurrection of Jesus Christ. An earthquake, no matter how big it might be, is back page news compared to the great headline news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, today most folk are more interested in earthquakes than the resurrection. But our faith is built on the resurrection, not on any earthquake. Our eternal hopes are built on the resurrection, not on an earthquake. That puts the earthquake in perspective. It may have been a "great" earthquake that would get world attention today, but the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so much more important than any "great" earthquake that it gets the front page headline and the earthquake gets the back page notice if it gets any notice at all—and Mark, Luke, and John did not even deem it important enough to note. Matthew’s noting of it was simply because of its association with the stone removal.
How much we need to get this perspective about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is so very, very, very important; for if Christ is not risen from the grave our faith is empty, vain, and worthless (1 Corinthians 15:14). "The fact of the resurrection is the key-stone of Christianity. Disprove the resurrection of our Lord, and our holy faith would be a mere fable; there would be nothing for faith to rest upon if He who died upon the tree did not also rise again from the tomb... All the great doctrines of our divine religion fall asunder like the stones of an arch when the key-stone is dislodged" (Spurgeon). Bishop Ryle said, "We need not wonder that so much importance is attached to our Lord’s resurrection. It is the seal and headstone of the great work of redemption, which He came to do. It is the crowning proof that He has paid the debt which He undertook to pay on our behalf, won the battle which He fought to deliver us from hell, and is accepted as our Surety and our Substitute by our Father in heaven. Had He never come forth from the prison of the grave, how could we ever have been sure that our ransom had been fully paid?-... Had He never risen from His conflict with the last enemy, how could we have felt confident, that He has overcome death, and him that had the power of death, that is the devil? (Hebrews 2:14). But thanks be unto God... The Lord Jesus really ’rose again for our justification.’ True Christians are ’begotten again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.’"
The earthquake associated with the resurrection of Christ sends at least three significant messages. They are a message of conquest, a message of change, and a message of condemnation.
A message of conquest. "Behold, there was a great earthquake" (Matthew 28:2). "The earthquake was a royal trumpet to proclaim this victory, the greatest that ever was obtained against an enemy. The deep murmur and hollow sound which came from beneath the earth gave notice, at one blast, to heaven and hell and to all Judea that the Son of God about that instant... did break the gates of brass, and smite the bars of death in sunder" (Bishop Hacket). A. T. Robertson, in commenting on the significance of the earthquake, quoted Cornelius à Lapide who said, "The earth, which trembled with sorrow at the Death of Christ, as it were, leaped for joy at His Resurrection." The earthquake signaled the conquest of Christ over the power of sin and death. The earthquake emphasizes the power of the resurrection.
A message of change. Like the earthquake at the crucifixion, this earthquake accompanied a new dispensation. In our book on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ we noted that earthquakes accompanied the beginning of new dispensations. As an example, it accompanied the ushering in of the dispensation of the law when an earthquake accompanied the giving of the law on the mount to Moses (Exodus 19:18). In like manner, the dispensation of grace (the Gospel) was accompanied by an earthquake at the crucifixion and at the resurrection.
A message of condemnation. "Behold, there was a great earthquake" (Matthew 28:2). Judgment can also be seen in this earthquake for its destruction upon the enemies’ work against Christ at the grave in sealing the tomb. As we noted about the earthquake at the crucifixion, earthquakes reported in the Bible generally carry a message of judgment with them. When the earth quakes, God is flexing His power against sin. When an earthquake is reported in Scripture, God is speaking. Of course, scientists and worldly philosophers will mock the conclusion that God is speaking in judgment in earthquakes. But mocking the fact that God is speaking in judgment through earthquakes only prolongs man’s ignorance and increases his peril.
We note here some Scripture texts carrying the judgment message in earthquakes.
Psalm 18:7: "The earth shook and trembled; and foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth."
Isaiah 29:6: "Thou shalt be visited of the Lord of hosts with thunder, and with earthquake, and great noise, with storm and tempest, and the flame of devouring fire." Isaiah 29 is speaking about judgment upon Jerusalem for their sinfulness. And one of those judgments listed for Jerusalem for her sin is "earthquake."
Amos 1:1: "The words of Amos, who was among the herdmen of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash king of Israel, two years before the earthquake." Uzziah did many great things as king of Judah, but great sin abounded in the land of Israel in both the northern and southern kingdoms during his reign. One of the judgments that came upon Israel as a result of their sin was a great earthquake. This one which occurred during Uzziah’s time was such a great one that it is mentioned some two to three hundred years later by the prophet Zechariah in his book which we will note next.
Zechariah 14:4,5: "And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof... And ye shall flee to the valley of the mountains, for the valley of the mountains shall reach unto Azal; yea, ye shall flee, like as ye fled from before the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah." There will be a great earthquake when Jesus Christ returns to earth. It will occur in the Mount of Olives. Judgment is associated with this coming. Zechariah says it will cause people to panic just as the great earthquake did during Uzziah’s time. Interestingly, scientists have discovered a major fault underneath the Mount of Olives. Some years ago a major hotel chain wanted to build a hotel on the Mount. But after having some specialists investigate the Mount, they decided not to build the hotel because the investigators reported a serious fault under the Mount which could precipitate an earthquake which could be very disastrous for any hotel built on the Mount.
Matthew 24:7 (cp. Mark 13:8 and Luke 21:11): "For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places." End time conditions are addressed here and "great earthquakes... in divers places" (Luke 21:11) is one of the conditions. The great increase in earthquakes in our day ought to cause some soul trembling, but the unbelieving world mocks any connection of earthquakes with Divine action.
Revelation 6:12; 8:5; 11:13; 11:19; 16:18 all speak of earthquakes in relation to judgment. Revelation is speaking of end-time judgment upon the earth, and at that time earthquakes will indeed be used to bring judgment upon the earth for sin.
Our Matthew text, which reports the removal of the stone from the entrance of Christ’s tomb, also reports the presence and action of an angel in regards to the removal of the stone. To examine this report about the angel, we note the abode of the angel, the action of the angel, and the appearance of the angel.
"The angel of the Lord descended from heaven" (Matthew 28:2). The angel (other Gospels will inform us that this was not the only angel that came to the tomb) came from heaven to do honor for Jesus Christ at the tomb. Angels are "supernatural beings... who assume human form at will and can disappear suddenly" (Ironside). They are called by various names in the Scriptures. We have used the name "seraphim" here for the angels. The name "seraphim" is found in the book of Isaiah and refers there to Isaiah’s vision of seeing God upon His throne above which "stood the seraphims [angels]; each one had six wings" (Isaiah 6:1,2).
Being of heaven, the one thing you can say about all these angels is that they are in the business of honoring Jesus Christ. Kings of earth were not honoring Christ or interested in Christ and His tomb, but angels in heaven certainly were. Many things that the earth does not honor and that does not interest earth are given great honor in heaven and are of great interest in heaven. It will do us well to get in tune with heaven in whom we honor and in what our interests are.
Angels attended Christ during His earthly ministry. They were present at His birth (Luke 2:9,13-15); they ministered to Him after the rugged temptation session with Satan (Matthew 4:11). An angel ministered to Christ when He was agonizing in the Garden of Gethsemane in prayer the night before the crucifixion (Luke 22:43). Angels showed up at the tomb after the resurrection, and they were also present at the ascension (Acts 1:10). Angels will accompany Christ when He returns to earth to establish His kingdom: "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory" (Matthew 25:31). The work of the angel at the tomb, in speaking to the women who came to the tomb that first Easter morning, illustrates the ministry of angels for those who are followers of Jesus Christ. "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation" (Hebrews 1:14).
"Came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it" (Matthew 28:2). Matthew records the angel as doing two things regarding the stone which covered the opening to the tomb where Christ had been laid by Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus. These two actions were removing the stone and residing on the stone.
Removing the stone. Tombs carved in rock ledges sometimes had the opening of the tomb closed by a large stone that was cut in a round shape so it could be rolled in a channel (cut in the rock in front of the tomb opening) to close the opening of the tomb. Making the stone in front of the tomb with the ability to roll was a practical thing, for some of these tombs were large enough for more than one person. Thus the tomb could be opened for further burials. The tomb made by Joseph of Arimathaea was a large tomb and one that could hold more than one person. Christ, of course, was its first and only occupant.
Why did the angel roll the stone away from the tomb opening? It was certainly not so Christ could get out. Christ was already gone. "He had left His grave behind Him, not through a door opened by disciple fingers or angel fingers but without the opening of a door" (Morgan). His resurrection body would not need any stone rolled away so He could get out of the tomb. His resurrection body would simply pass right through the stone or wall of the tomb. Proof of this is seen in the fact that Jesus entered the room where the disciples were on Easter Sunday night even though the doors were closed to the room (John 20:19). The resurrected body is different in many aspects from the physical body and knows no limitations by physical barriers. So the angel did not roll the stone away to let Christ out—the angel rolled the stone away to let others in. It was an entrance not an exit that the angel was creating. It was necessary for the women and others to see that the tomb was empty. They would have difficulty getting in if the stone was rolled across the opening. In fact the women were worried about that problem (Mark 16:3). The angel solved their worries. The stone rolled away from the opening of the tomb simply provided easy access to some proof of the resurrection of Jesus Christ—in a later chapter we will note more about the evidence found in the empty tomb. Suffice it here to note that the angel rolled the stone away from the tomb’s opening to create an entrance not an exit.
In contrast, the tomb of Lazarus was opened so the occupant, Lazarus could come out (John 11:39-44). Lazarus needed the tomb to be opened, for he did not come out in a resurrected body but in a physical body.
Residing on the stone. "And sat upon it" (Matthew 28:2). After rolling the stone away from the opening of the tomb, the angel sat upon the stone. This sitting on the stone proclaims two important things. It proclaims triumph and truth.
First, triumph. The angel sitting on the stone "bespeaks a secure triumph over all the obstructions of Christ’s resurrection. There he sat, defying all the power of hell to roll the stone to the grave again" (Henry). Sitting on the stone was an emphatic statement that said the resurrection was an accomplished fact and that Christ was victorious over death, Satan, and hell.
Second, truth. The angel sitting on the stone was to make sure that the evidence of the resurrection was going to be available to the seekers. The angel would make sure that the tomb would remain open for all to enter in to see that Christ was not there. The angel would make sure that truth, not error, was proclaimed. The religious leaders, as we will see in a later chapter, tried to perpetrate the lie that the disciples of Christ had stolen the body from the grave. The angel, in the interests of truth, sits on the stone to make sure folk could enter the grave and see the evidence about the resurrection. Many apostates have tried to roll the stone back over the door to conceal the truth of Christ’s resurrection, but heaven works to keep the truth available for all to see. Satan wants the truth concealed, but the work of the angels shows that heaven wants to make the truth revealed. There is a great battle going on in the world regarding Divine truth. Many want to put Divine truth in a sealed tomb to keep it from the people. But heaven is in the business of illuminating men regarding the truth.
"His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow" (Matthew 28:3). The word translated countenance is the Greek word meaning appearance. The appearance of the angel was very striking and traumatic to the viewers.
"The appearance of the angel reflects heaven and holiness. The one [lightning] expressing the glory [heaven], the other [white] the purity [holiness] of the celestial abode from which he [the angel] came" (Brown).
Heaven. "His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow." The angel’s appearance was one of glory. The "lightning" speaks of the glittering of the glory. When Scripture speaks of heavenly beings, similar descriptions are given. During the transfiguration of Christ, His appearance was described in terms of shining as the "sun" (Matthew 17:2), "shining" (Mark 9:3), and "glistering" of radiance (Luke 9:29).
All of this says heaven is glorious in comparison to earth. Earth is dull and drab compared to heaven. Nothing of earth will outshine the splendor of heaven; but whenever heaven reveals itself on earth, its splendor far outshines anything on earth. We do well to evaluate all the glories of the earth in view of the great splendor of heaven. Too many folk think the bright lights of earth are where the splendor is, but heaven’s brightness will make the brightest of earth’s lights look as darkness.
Holiness. "His raiment [was] white as snow." "Celestial beings are usually represented as clothed in white... White... was the symbol of purity or innocence" (Barnes). The emphasis on the holiness of God carries with it a warning note to mankind. White speaks of judgment upon sin. Holiness cannot tolerate evil and will war against evil and destroy it. When Christ returns, His brightness will destroy the Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:8). The angel reflects the holiness of heaven in his appearance at the tomb. Holiness triumphed over wickedness at the tomb. Wickedness brought darkness; holiness brings light.
The day after the crucifixion the religious leaders, even though it was the Sabbath day, went to Pilate to request of him to have the tomb sealed and sentries posted at the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66). They were afraid the disciples might come and steal the body and proclaim the resurrection promise of Christ. They did not know that their fears were groundless. They succeeded in getting Pilate to grant permission to have the tomb sealed and to provide sentries to guard the tomb. The sentries watched the tomb faithfully, but they did not see Christ rise. What they did see was the angel and the opening of the tomb. Though rough and tough Roman soldiers, the sentries could not endure the coming of the angel to the tomb. The Matthew text for this chapter in our book reports their reaction to the angel. It was an embarrassing reaction for Roman soldiers, but it showed that God was in power, not Rome.
To study the sentries’ encounter with the angel at the tomb who rolled the stone away from the opening of the tomb, we note the fearing by the sentries, the fainting by the sentries, and the fleeing by the sentries. In the next chapter of our book, we will study in detail about the sentries after they fled the tomb.
"For fear of him the keepers did shake" (Matthew 28:4). The sentries, though hardened Roman soldiers, cowered when the angel came. "Those hardy Roman soldiers, though not unused to dreadful sights, saw a sight which made them quail. Their courage melted at once at the appearance of one angel of God" (Ryle). These soldiers were earthy men, and "thought of the spirit-land and impressions of reverence were not in their world; the shock they had received... [was] sheer physical terror only. As horses are frightened in the flashes of the tempest, and the wild things of the woods are suddenly tame in the blow of any tremendous flood of fire; so these strong human animals were cowed by the lightning from an angel’s face. They would have been dauntless amidst the shock of battle... but they were dumb before a being who was not flesh and blood" (Stanford).
Their fear was evidenced in their trembling. And this trembling was no small bit of trembling either. The word "shake" is from the same word as "earthquake." Williams says, "The verb [shake] is cognate with the noun [earthquake]... they were shaken, convulsed with terror." F. C. Cook says, "The word [shake] indicates a severe convulsion, as in an earthquake." These "brave?" sentries "were told that they must expect to be assaulted by a company of feeble faint-hearted disciples, who for fear of them would soon shake and become as dead men, but are are amazed to find themselves attacked by a mighty angel whom they dare not look in the face. Thus doth God frustrate his enemies by frightening them" (Henry). These sentries are like Eliphaz, one of Job’s vain comforters, who told Job about his mysterious experience in which "Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake" (Job 4:14). Of the wicked, the Psalmist says, "Put them in fear, O Lord; that the nations may know themselves to be but men" (Psalm 9:20). Fear is a painful product of sin.
This trembling in fear before the heavenly visitor forecasts the great trembling which will take place when unrepentant sinners stand before the judgment bar of the Almighty.
"And became as dead men" (Matthew 28:4). "The effect of the angel’s coming to the foes of Christ was that of their absolute discomfiture. They became as dead men in the presence of the blinding glory of the angel visitor" (Morgan). Note the text carefully. It does not say the sentries died; but they were like dead men; that is, they fainted on the spot. They fell down on the ground in front of the tomb and looked like dead men. "In their fright at the appearance of this celestial messenger, the hard, sturdy soldiers of the guard fainted away, unable to look upon his terrifying countenance" (Ironside). "They were posted here, to keep a dead man in his grave—as easy a piece of service surely as was ever assigned them, and yet it proves too hard for them" (Henry). They did not remain in this condition indefinitely; for, as we will note next, they came to and got up and fled the place. The fainting though traumatic was temporary.
Later in Matthew (Matthew 28:11) we are told that some of the sentries went to the chief priests and told them what had happened. The rest of the sentries also left their post of duty, for when the women came no sentries were around. So the sentries fled the scene. Some went to the religious leaders, and some went elsewhere. They would, therefore, be no hindrance to anyone going into the grave to see the evidence of the resurrection. God can remove hindrances to His work quickly and powerfully. The enemy of God plotted to conceal the truth, but they could not conceal the truth.
—Studies of the Savior